Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Writing from the Inside Out

This is the pre-orientation week at my school. Part of the preparations for the year is a series of Back-to-School Workshops for teachers, and I volunteered to do a reprise of a workshop I did during July at the Summer Lab School which I had decided to call “Writing from the Inside Out,” based on a series of notions that I have gravitated toward during my 40 years as a full-time teacher and sometime writer. Taken together those notions form a kind of architectural framework for a pedagogical philosophy that I would describe as being radically simplistic. I think that in school students are often taught, in subtle and often unintentional ways, that writing is a certain sort of (schooly) thing that is done is a certain sort of (schooly) way for a certain sort of (schooly) purpose. This indoctrination seems to start in the middle elementary grades and gets progressively more severe as students progress through school, to the point where many high school students (and adults) feel not just that feel that writing is something that is not for them, or worse, that they hate it. "Writing from the Inside Out" is my shorthand for a process which starts with what is going on inside the minds of the students as opposed to the more prevalent process of starting with what the teacher's agenda might happen to be.

There’s a book I like a lot by Danny Gregory called The Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission to Be the Artist You Truly Are. It includes a short quotation from Howard Ikemoto that goes like this: “When my daughter was about seven years old she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college — that my job was to teach people how to draw. She stared at me, incredulous, and said “You mean they forget?”

What I was driving at today, basically, was this: Writing is — or can be — a playful activity, a self-expressive activity, an exploratory activity, with satisfactions and rewards that come from no other source. It is potentially a powerful and relevant and, to use a word perhaps too often bandied about, transformative self-teaching tool at every grade level and in every discipline. But somewhere along the line we teach kids to forget that. We make it into a compliance activity and we remove from it most of the things that make it most satisfying and enjoyable. My argument is that we have to try to reclaim and turn students loose in at least some of the territory in which writing is about discovery and craft and the revelations that can emerge from purposeful play, and to recover some of the initial joy and energy and engagement that writing held for them before they arrived at school.

So I shared a couple of radically simple writing exercises, the first of which was a three minute poetry exercise I described in a post three and a half years ago. As the other teachers wrote at their seats, I did one at the board. As often happens when you write freely with no preconceptions, I surprised myself with what showed up:

Loss. Departures. The sun
setting, long shadows singing
their song of lament. Why this?
Why now? What recourse,
what will we have left
when the new day dawns?

I’m not going to go into all of the background, the ballast, that pushed these words out onto the board in front of me. Suffice it to say that I recognize in these words a fresh opportunity, and what I would see as fertile ground. There are things to play with here: the emotion, the images, the questions, the sequences of syllables. There's a poem waiting to emerge, or perhaps an essay, or perhaps a story, or perhaps something I can only sense but do not yet have a name for.

It's a beginning. There's interesting work yet to be done. I love being in that spot. I’ve been missing that. Having the chance to do the workshop gave me the spur to start writing again.

Summer is over. Next week I’ll be back in the classroom again after two years doing admin only. I’m really excited about it.